Seeds 4 Thought…Drew Kinder’s seed blog

Dumbing Down the Seed Business in 2007
April 27, 2007, 11:17 pm
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The Situation:
Around St. Patrick’s Day, 2007 I conducted a survey of the lawn seed being sold in my home town of Buffalo NY.
I limited my search to the national “Big Box” retailers to get a better idea of what is selling across the country. I visited three stores; megastore “WM”, home improvement store “HD” and home improvement store “L”. The names have been withheld to protect me from detection by some nefarious web crawler.
Home improvement store HD did not have a new supply of seed in stock as of March 3. I will circle back later to check their new offerings, but frankly, I will be surprised if they are materially different than WM or L’s.
In my survey I examined 27 different seed mixes in the two stores. Several identically branded products are sold in both stores, but they contain different seed varieties, so I counted them as different products.Grades:
Packaging A+
Mechanical Quality A
Genetic Quality D
Agronomic Quality C-

The lawn seed department is spectacular. Standing straight on the shelf, the beautifully printed bags proclaim in bold colors the solution to all your lawn problems. Names like “Pure Premium”, “Dense Shade Mix” and “Ultra Fescue” shout to trusting shoppers. My personal favorite is “Perfect Seed” from the “Expert Gardener” brand, promising to be “the only seed you will ever need”. Based on packaging alone, one would expect to be buying the best possible lawn seed.

Mechanical Quality:
Mechanical quality is the measure of seed contaminants such as weeds and other crop seeds, as well as the germination rate.
I found the seed to be uniformly high in germination and low in weeds and other crop seeds. Scotts is particularly noteworthy for consistently offering seed with only .01% weeds, which is extremely low. Almost every product from every seed company had weeds at .05% or less, which is more than acceptable.
Germination was also very good; 85% or better for bluegrass and routinely 90% for other species.
In general, it is not possible to differentiate seed brands based on mechanical quantity. The large chains apparently demand clean, vigorous seed, and all the seed packagers comply.

Genetic Quality:
Genetic quality is the bred-in ability of a seed to produce a beautiful, disease resistant lawn. Genetic quality comes from turfgrass plant breeders who carefully select and cross individual turfgrass plants for as long as 10 years to produce a distinct improved variety.
Genetic quality differs from mechanical quality. If you plant seed with great mechanical quality and very poor genetic quality, you will get a bad lawn 100% of the time. On the contrary, if you plant seed with great genetic quality and poor mechanical quality you can still produce a great lawn. You might have to use more seed to compensate for a low germination rate, or use extra weed control after the lawn is established, but the underlying lawn will be beautiful.

Bluegrass: Buffalo is in the heart of bluegrass growing country, which I roughly define as the area from Minneapolis down to Indianapolis across to mid-state New Jersey and up through Boston and back to Minneapolis again.
You would expect retailers to offer a fairly good genetic selection of Kentucky bluegrasses in Buffalo, but the opposite is the case.
Here are the primary bluegrass varieties I found;
• Abbey: This variety finished in the middle of the pack in the first National Turfgrass Evaluation Program (NTEP) bluegrass trial more than 20 years ago. Abbey ranked significantly below Midnight and other well known older varieties in overall turfgrass quality.
• Park: Developed by the University of Minnesota in 1957, Park is described as an agricultural forage type bluegrass by Penn State University.
• Kenblue: This is another forage bluegrass popular with farmers and ranchers. Developed in the late 60’s by the University of Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station and the USDA, Kenblue is a standard entry in the NTEP bluegrass trials, where it consistently finishes at the bottom of the trial for turfgrass quality.
• Newport: Originally released in 1958, Newport is a non-proprietary variety that is widely used by seed growers in Washington State as a common type bluegrass.
• Blue Bonnet: This bluegrass variety is being used by both of the major seed companies supplying WM and L’s.

Fine Fescue: Growing grass in the shade is one of the greatest lawn challenges in Buffalo. The recommended species for planting in the shade are creeping red fescue, chewings fescue, and hard fescue.
The most commonly used fine fescue I found in shade mixes was creeping red fescue. Chewings fescue was used in only one mix, Pennington’s Sun& Shade, and hard fescue was not used in any mixes.
Boreal is the primary creeping red fescue being used. Boreal is synonymous with common, unimproved Canadian creeping red fescue.
I noticed a few more improved varieties of creeping red fescue are being used this season. These include Fenway, Aruba, and a newer variety named Lustrous.
Replacing Boreal with improved varieties is a step in the right direction, but unfortunately it is cancelled out by the inappropriate use of non-shade tolerant components in the same mixes. I have more to say about this under agronomic quality.

Tall Fescue: The good news about tall fescue is the chain stores seem to have pretty much discontinued selling K-31 tall fescue, which is a weed in my opinion. The bad news is that the improved tall fescue varieties that replaced it are not as good as they could be. With the exception of 30% Justice Tall Fescue in Pennington’s Ultra Fescue, and their Rebel Elite blend, the improved tall fescue varieties being offered are either low rated in the NTEP trials or have never been tested.

Agronomic Quality: I define Agronomic quality as providing the appropriate seed for the environment in which the grass is to be grown.
In my opinion, the most egregious failure in agronomic quality is Scott’s Pure Premium “Heat Tolerant Blue”.
I believe the average gardener in Buffalo who buys this product will believe he or she is purchasing Kentucky bluegrass seed. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
“Heat Tolerant Blue” contains 90% tall fescue by weight, and 10% Thermal hybrid bluegrass. Hybrid bluegrasses are a cross between Texas bluegrass (Poa arachnifera) and Kentucky bluegrass (Poa pratensis). Hybrids are bred to survive climates too hot for Kentucky bluegrass, such as Georgia and Alabama (see Fahrenheit 90 hybrid bluegrass on our price list). When you cross Texas bluegrass with Kentucky bluegrass you gain heat tolerance but you lose a measure of turfgrass quality. Clearly, Buffalo, NY is an inappropriate place to plant heat tolerant bluegrass, even considering global warming. Furthermore, the unsuspecting homeowner who renovates or patches his beautiful bluegrass lawn with “Heat Tolerant Blue” will end up with a tall fescue and bluegrass succotash lawn.
Another agronomic disappointment is all the shady mixes that contain high percentages of perennial ryegrass or intermediate ryegrass. Perennial ryegrass has no shade tolerance, so any amount above 20% (for quick cover) reduces the effectiveness of the mix.
Intermediate rye packs a double whammy. Not only is it not shade tolerant, but it is not winter hardy either. What shade doesn’t kill, cold weather will. One really objectionable shade mix contained intermediate rye, Boreal creeping red fescue, and Kenblue Kentucky bluegrass. I almost gagged!

Conclusion: I can’t blame the seed marketing companies entirely for the dumbing down of the lawn seed industry. In a business environment dominated by the slogan “We Sell for Less”, marketers can’t survive without minimizing product cost.
There are a number of ways to reduce seed costs. One is to use obsolete seed varieties for which no plant breeding royalty is collected.
A second way to reduce cost is to use varieties that produce a high seed yield. Seed growers are paid by the pound not by the acre, therefore they prefer to grow high yielding varieties and demand a premium to grow low yielding varieties. Improved varieties, especially elite Kentucky bluegrass varieties, sometimes produce fewer pounds of seed per acre than older common varieties and thus cost more.
The net result of these factors is a product selection where the ultimate quality of your lawn is secondary to the selling price of the seed.
I know I am preaching to the choir here, but if you really care about your lawn it is prudent to be cautious about the seed you purchase.